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Subtlety in Song 

The xx's rise to fame is fueled by their love for playing music together

Fortune favors the bold, but not always. Back in 2009, when the young members of the xx—Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim, Jamie Smith and Baria Qureshi—released their eponymous album for Young Turks/XL, its snaking, subtle melodies caught fire in an indie music landscape more receptive to the sweeping vistas of Arcade Fire or the hair-raising electro-racket of Animal Collective. Nevertheless, the xx's debut was a charmer, with mysterious, opaquely taciturn lyrics, beguiling male-female vocal exchanges and a slight patina of clubby dream-pop. Recently, I spoke with Croft, who was busy rehearsing in London for the group's worldwide tour, which brings them to the Rialto Theatre on Feb. 17. Croft spoke about her first awareness, during Coachella in 2010, that the group had arrived.

"We were used to playing to about 100 to 200 people when we first toured America and we were playing small clubs," Croft said. "But when we walked out on stage and there were 20,000 or 30,000 people, it was a defining moment. ... It was terrifying but incredible."

Partly, what drew so many people to the xx's Coachella performance is the mesmeric quality of the group's hushed, sedate music. The xx's approach is alluring in its simplicity, but Croft was quick to address their pragmatism.

"Our minimal sound came from the fact that we couldn't necessarily play our instruments very well at the beginning, and we wanted to make sure we could play everything live," Croft said. "That's why the songs aren't that complicated, because we couldn't play them. We couldn't overcomplicate them if we tried."

Nevertheless, there's a modicum of modesty at play in Croft's comments because the xx's micro-sound, sanded at the edges but chewy and substantial at its core, only seems basic. It is masterful; precisely edited for maximum resonance with minimal decibels. But by the time the trio—Qureshi departed shortly after the release of the group's debut album because of "personal differences"—had toured their debut extensively, they found such dedication to their craft had ossified their personal lives.

"All of our friends had moved out of home, gone to university, and almost finished university by the time we got home [from touring the first album]," Croft said. "We still lived with our parents and things like that. So, we kind of did a bit of moving out of home, got our own flats, and once we'd done that it all started naturally and we started writing again."

The process of creating their sophomore album, Coexist (Young Turks/XL), a natural, if more dynamic, progression of the group's becalmed sound, took shape after touring because of the distractions of the road.

"I find it quite hard writing on tour," Croft said. "I like to be alone and have quiet ... but you can't really have that on tour because you're constantly surrounded by people and there's always noise."

Eventually, the group got around to working in earnest on their anticipated follow-up. For Croft, time away from touring and the comforts of her own place allowed her to begin songwriting.

"For me, it's the lyrics first. It starts more just like a poem or words on a page and then I sit down with my guitar or a keyboard and just lash out melodies and it kind of happens from there," Croft said. "I usually send what I have to Oliver—he works via email—and he works on it and sends it back."

What may sound like a strained or isolated recording process perfectly suits the xx: The way Coexist closer "Our Song" repeatedly billows from a warm electronic pulse into a steady gallop before subsiding suggests the kind of introspective restraint idealized in seclusion.

"It's quite a comfortable way of working," Croft said. "You don't feel so exposed as if you're sitting with each other in the same room."

Appropriately, Coexist, from its more confident, swaggering beauty to its brevity and genuine shyness, is a perfect representation of the individuals who comprise the band.

"When we first started playing live, I couldn't look up," Croft said. "I couldn't look anyone in the eye. I think through playing live ... we've gotten a lot of confidence as people. And I think growing up and getting a bit older, I think the confidence shows a lot more onstage."

For all the love it received, Coexist also weathered a share of critical indifference—as though many were expecting full brass sections or boozy pub rock influences. Because the album is only a subtle step forward for the group, it is easy to overlook its complexity. Nevertheless, depth exists in the noirish, vamping undercurrent of "Fiction," or the way "Try" cracks the surface of its shimmering beauty with alarm-call atmospherics, or how "Tides" uses blurry, unsettled rhythms to overwhelm its soulfulness, or even the anxious electronics of "Swept Away," a lush masterpiece. Although Croft said there was no set vision for Coexist, recording the album was inspirational.

"I think we've learned very much from making Coexist, so that next time we'll know what we want to do a bit more," Croft said. "I'm really embracing whatever happens, and I'm really excited to make more music, much sooner."

Croft admits this surge of post-recording creativity will mean putting aside personal preferences and writing on tour ("Try and find a quiet room and push ourselves to work a bit more on tour, musically; I'm really excited to do that"), but she also admits to finding the life of the traveling musician to be difficult in atypical ways.

Touring is "an amazing experience, but sometimes I think, 'Oh, gosh, I'd quite like to be going to bed now,'" Croft said. "It's very tiring to be doing that every night, but I wouldn't drop it."

In large part, the xx will continue to thrive as a recording, touring entity because of their interpersonal relationships. Croft has been friends with Sim since the two were 3, and both have known Smith since the age of 11. Referring to both men as "my brothers, really," Croft seems most expressive and excited when it comes to being creative, productive and together as the xx.

"We are friends foremost, and when we make music together it feels right," Croft said. "It feels very comfortable. It's very nice to be back in rehearsals and hanging out and playing music and working out new things for our live show. It kind of reminds me that this is what we do. When you're out on tour and (doing) promotional stuff it can get lost that you're making music. It's nice to get back to just the three of us playing together."

More by Michael Petitti

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